Oslo Metropolitan University, Volda University College, and University of Gothenburg
Sweden is a digitally developed country marked by a mix of public service broadcasters, commercial legacy news media, and emerging alternative news media. Domestic news publishers have lost much of their advertising revenues in recent years, with many hoping that increasing reader revenues will make up some of the gap.
From 2008 to 2018 Swedish commercial news media lost more than one-third of their advertising revenues, and since figures are quite stable for television, the biggest losers are organisations formerly known as newspapers. Clearly, the digital and mobile advertising markets have grown over time, but most of that growth has gone to global platform companies such as Facebook and Google (and increasingly also Amazon). Advertisers have also shifted marketing spend towards paying influencers to talk about their brands, especially on Instagram and YouTube.
So far Swedish news media remain in business, albeit a great number are dependent on press subsidies from the Swedish state, with a budget of nearly 500m SEK (US$53m) in 2018. Following a media inquiry, the government decided to increase subsidies to publications that regularly produce original news content comprising at least 55% of their content, and have at least 1,500 news consumers, predominantly in Sweden. Support for print has increased by 10%, with distribution support increasing by 50 %The new deal also adds more support for innovation and a subsidy of up to 1m SEK to local areas with limited news provision (so-called news deserts).1 Meanwhile, public service broadcasters continue to attract sufficient reach among the Swedish population (and the young) to maintain their legitimacy and public acceptance for the tax payments. The publicly funded television company SVT has reworked their proprietary website, while SR continues to work strategically with non-proprietary social media platforms, and has experimented with atomised audio. SR produces a substantial number of podcasts, which are also accessible via commercial audio streaming service provider Spotify.
In Sweden many news media have continued to cut staffing levels and improve efficiency. Some have implemented or expanded their use of the services for automated content production offered by companies like United Robots. Others, like the largest local news organisation in Sweden (MittMedia), have focused on developing and running better technical systems for their digital news publishing, analytics, and advertising sales. This has allowed them to syndicate news more easily, as well as increasing revenues across 28 local markets.
Our Digital News Report survey data show that 27% of Swedes have paid for online news in the last year, one of the highest levels in our survey. Several news publishers offer special promotions with reduced pricing to convert readers into registered subscribers. However, churn rates are often high, with many people ending subscriptions after the promotional period ends.
Swedish news publishers continue to accelerate their efforts to increase reader revenue, experimenting with different approaches to online subscription models. MittMedia made a bold move during the autumn, enforcing a paywall for all of their own news materials (not newswire materials), and across their portfolio of local news publishers. Before making this move, their data scientists, analysts, and business developers carried out tests with such paywalls on a small selection of local markets. A baseline requirement for reader revenue also involves making use of functioning systems for subscriber management. In 2018 Bonnier Magazines lost approximately 10–20% of all their subscribers in the course of a few months due to problems with their systems.
The shift to a reader revenue model will require changes to analytics infrastructure and the metrics used for understanding the needs of existing and potential customers. In light of this, some Swedish news publishers are trying to reduce their dependency on platform companies by focusing more on creating value on their own websites and apps (Chua and Westlund 2019). Having said this, several news media recently partnered with Facebook over fact-checking ahead of and throughout the general election, to combat disinformation.
Lastly, let us turn to partisan and alternative sites, what Holt et al. (2019) conceptualise as ‘alternative news media’. In Sweden these are mostly found on the right wing, and have positioned themselves as ‘alternatives’ for those who do not find legacy news media credible. Fria Tider, Nyheter Idag, and Samhällsnytt are the three most widely used, each reaching around one-tenth of the Swedish online population on a weekly basis, according to our recall-based survey. These figures are comparable to survey findings for the two largest quality newspapers Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet in print and a bit lower than their online news consumption figures.
TV and online news remains stable, but newspaper reading and social media news access have dropped significantly. The latter is explained by Facebook changing their algorithms to expose their users to less news, but also because news publishers are focusing more on their own websites. 70% access news via smartphone, one of the highest figures in our survey.
Four out of ten Swedes express a general trust in the news, similarly to previous years. Trust is naturally higher for the news sources people regularly turn to. Swedes express somewhat lower trust in news found through search engines, and express substantially less trust in news exposed via social media.